The Emerald Isle: Greenery and Guinness

When I wasn’t passing out in a bar somewhere, and when I was actually out of bed during daylight hours, Dublin proved itself to be quite a beautiful place. After making my way back to Dublin proper after another night of crashing with Matt, I spent the day exploring some of the more touristic sights of the city. I started with O’Connell Street, which is the main shopping street of Dublin. There is a monument called The Spire of Dublin, which is a tall, needle-like aluminium structure and, at about 120 metres high, is probably one of the tallest buildings in Dublin. I also swung past the General Post Office – only because I had to post a few postcards – and discovered that it was actually one of the most prominent and important buildings on the street. The post office actually served as the office of the rebels during the uprising of the Irish Republicans in 1916, although most of the structure was destroyed in the conflict. It was rebuilt in the same place, and all that remains of the original post office is the facade, littered with bullet holes and other marks of destruction, as though this regular building in the everyday life of Dubliners also served as a history museum, and a reminder of a past that seemed to bring them all together. At least, that’s how it seemed to me – I’d never even know much a, bout the uprising before stumbling across the General Post Office, so I learnt a thing or two that morning.

The other thing I did on O’Connell Street – although it had been the day before, while Matt was at the GAA game – was try Supermac’s. “Oh have to, you just have to try Supermac’s”, Matt had said to me while we were lying around in bed on my first day. “It’s an Irish institution, that is. Even the Americans are jealous of our fries.” And upon my first visit, I could see why. They had a ridiculous array of ‘dressed fries’, which essentially meant they were smothered in all kinds of delicious, savoury, and completely unhealthy toppings. I struggled to choose just one, but in the end I made my decision to get the nacho fries, and I would do it again in a slow, cholesterol stifled heartbeat.

The delicious, fast food goodness I ordered from Supermac's.

The delicious, fast food goodness I ordered from Supermac’s.

South of O’Connell Street, across the River Liffey, were more things to see, including the Dublin Castle and St Stephens Green. The castle was a large complex with museums, chapels and some beautiful gardens, and I wandered throughout each of the attractions. St Stephens Green was further south of the castle, and it was beautiful park that stretched out and marked its claim within the city. There were lakes and bridges and flowers and green lawns, and it was a beautiful day so everyone was out making the most of the sunshine. I myself, still feeling rather under the weather from my weekend of heavy drinking – laid out on the green with my book and enjoyed the uncharacteristically warm Irish weather.

Entrance to Dublin Castle.

Entrance to Dublin Castle.

Statue of Lady Justice inside the castle compound.

Statue of Lady Justice inside the castle compound.

One of the castles chapels from the outside.

One of the castles chapels from the outside.

View of the castle from one of its several beautiful green lawns.

View of the castle from one of its several beautiful green lawns.

Statue in St Stephens Green.

Statue in St Stephens Green.

That evening, I took a break from both being a tourist and from trying to live like an Irish local. I spent a night sober and headed out to the live gig of one of my favourite bands, Paramore. I had been checking out their touring schedule a few months prior and noticed that they were going to be playing in Dublin a few nights before I was due to fly out, so I had bought myself a ticket, assuming that I would’ve had to have arrived in Dublin by then. Live music and gigs have always been a pretty big part of my life, and something that I obviously hadn’t been able to do much of while I was travelling, so it was a really nice thing for me to do – and also to give my body a break from the copious drinking I had been doing with Matt.

Sunset by the River Liffey.

Sunset by the River Liffey.

Paramore playing live in Dublin.

Paramore playing live in Dublin.

Confetti falling as the band plays their final song.

Confetti falling as the band plays their final song.

The band was amazing and the show was great, and afterwards I walked back to my hostel from the venue, realising that tonight would actually be the first night I spent in the hostel that I had been checked into during this whole time in Dublin. It would also be the last – I was rudely awoken at about 5am by the train station next door. The train tracks were literally right outside the rooms window, so the screaming engine and seemingly endless stream of following carriages with definitely not my alarm clock of choice.

***

The following day, just when you thought that I couldn’t possibly cram any more alcohol into my short stay in Dublin, I went to visit the factory and brewery of what many Irishmen probably consider the country’s pride and joy, their most famous export – Guinness. While it was hard to see from the outside, the building itself was supposed to shaped like a huge pint of Guinness, including a rooftop bar with a 360º view where the frothy head of a real pint would be. The visit was a tour that took you through the entire brewery, starting with the factory itself where the Guinness was made. Despite smelling a little weird, it was quite interesting to see the steps that went into making the brew, and pretty cool to see all the machines churning through the vast amounts of water, hops, yeast and barley.

Outside the Guinness factory.

Outside the Guinness factory.

Huge pools of all the ingredients were being prepared to brew the brew en masse.

Huge pools of all the ingredients were being prepared to brew the brew en masse.

After the actual brewing rooms, there was a brief tour of the history of Guinness, where we learnt all about the founding of the company by Arthur Guinness, and all about its worldwide spread into a globally recognised brand. There was also a gallery of some of the different advertising campaigns for Guinness over the years.

Sculpture from the gallery of Guinness advertising memorabilia.

Sculpture from the gallery of Guinness advertising memorabilia.

A lamp shaped to resemble a pint of Guinness, with light shining out of the white 'head'.

A lamp shaped to resemble a pint of Guinness, with light shining out of the white ‘head’.

We also did a tasting of Guinness, where we were taught how to properly drink it and identify the different stages and flavours you experienced during the process. I would later give Matt a scolding, because I hadn’t realised that there had been a very particular way of drinking Guinness.
“You can’t just sip it,” the worker in the brewery had informed us. “The head isn’t too tasty, so you have to drink through it. You need to take a big mouthful to get past the foam, and then you roll it through your mouth before swallowing it. Almost like it’s a mouthful of food, rather than stout.” Although my nose was wet and white afterwards, I found that those instructions made it much easier to drink the Guinness without it pouring down my chin and all over the table, like it had when Matt had insisted that I tried a pint the other night.
“No, of course you don’t sip it! It’s a man’s drink – big gulps!” Matt had said when I confronted him about that.
“Well why didn’t you tell me that in the first place!?”

One of the last parts of the pour was a lesson on how to pour the perfect pint. When you pour Guinness it takes a long time to settle – like when you’re pouring champagne and you have to wait for the bubbles to subside so you can finish filling the glass up, except a hundred times worse. Because of this, pouring the perfect Guinness has come to be regarded as something of an art. You have to hold the glass at just the right angle, pulling the tab the right direction and having the stout hit exactly the right part of the glass as it pours out. Once you’ve filled it to a precise level, you have to wait for it to continue settling, which usually takes at least a couple of minutes, before gently finishing off the pouring process by topping the glass up with just the right amount of frothy head. The trick is to have it just slightly swelling above the rim of the glass without it actually overflowing. Over the past weekend I had seen far too many pints of Guinness being poured, so it was kind of fascinating to realise just how delicate a process it actually was – most of the bartenders I’d seen could do it seemingly without even thinking, although I guess that probably comes with the experience of being a bartender in Ireland. I don’t think I quite mastered it in the end, but I feel I did a pretty decent job, and in the end I received my certificate that asserted I was “qualified” to pour the “perfect” pint.

The steps to pouring a perfect pint.

The steps to pouring a perfect pint.

A few mouthfuls into the not so perfect pint of Guinness that I poured myself.

A few mouthfuls into the not so perfect pint of Guinness that I poured myself.

What was most surprising, though, was the fact that I was actually beginning to like the taste of Guinness! Despite all my previous moaning about it to Matt, I think I had had enough samples and been exposed to it enough that I could actually drink a whole pint to myself. Like beer, I suppose, Guinness was an acquired taste that I had finally acquired. It would never be my first choice anywhere else in the world except Ireland though, but at least I could say that I’d sprouted a few extra hairs on my chest and finished a pint to myself. After the pouring I went up to the rooftop bar to take a few pictures as my final stop on the tour of the brewery. There was a complete panoramic view of the surrounding parts of Dublin, and it was a gorgeous and sunny day so the sights were just marvellous.

View from the rooftop bar at the Guinness factory.

View from the rooftop bar at the Guinness factory, with Phoenix Park in the distance.

 ***

I finished off the afternoon with a stroll through the nearby Phoenix Park. While it was quite close, I’d rather underestimated its size – you could probably fit at least 50 St Stephens Greens in the park. It was was a gorgeous afternoon, so the place was full of joggers, bikers and family picnics. The Dublin Zoo was also located in Phoenix Park, so I wandered by that to see if I could catch a sneaky glimpse of any of the animals. I passed by a huge obelisk called the Wellington Testimonial, which I had seen from the rooftop of the Guinness brewery, and climbed the shallow stairs around the base so that I was right beneath it, and looked up as it towered over me. It was a long walk through the huge park, and I’d ended up having at least a few pints at the Guinness factory, so I was feeling a little drowsy. I was meeting Matt later that evening for my final night in Dublin, so I turned my afternoon stroll around and set my course for the city, ambling along in the bright afternoon sunshine.

Wellington Testimonial in Phoenix Park.

Wellington Testimonial in Phoenix Park.

Advertisements

Space Cakes, Champagne and Other Adventures in Amsterdam

The end of Saturday night (or Sunday morning) had felt somewhat euphoric – the next day, not so much. It had had been a long day of drinking and partying, and we all felt particularly rough. Joris made breakfast again, and we all nursed our hangovers as we reminisced about all the fun and crazy things that had happened – Thijs still couldn’t believe we’d gone swimming in the canal. We all had a good laugh over the memory, but come the end of the morning, it was time for André to leave. He was heading off to Antwerp to compete in the OutGames, so we all said our goodbyes and promised to stay in touch. After that, Joris and Thijs were heading over to Vondelpark, the huge, long park towards the south of the city. Their friends were all meeting there that afternoon to hang out in the sun – making the most of it while it lasted – and said I was welcome to join them, but I had a few other things to do beforehand, so I told them I would meet them there later. André wasn’t the only person I would be saying goodbye to today.

Despite our best attempts, Ralf and I had failed to coordinate our actions and movements over the weekend, and hadn’t even seen each other since our arrival on Thursday afternoon. But now it was Sunday afternoon, and Ralf had to get back to Berlin. I hopped on my bike and rode back to Amsterdam Centraal, the main train station, parked and locked my bike and then went inside to find him. I found Ralf on the platform, saying goodbye to his friend who he had been staying with here. We were briefly introduced, but then he headed off to leave me alone with Ralf.
“How was your 4th pride weekend, cutie?” he said to me with that gorgeous smile of his. I told him where I’d ended up and what I’d been doing, and he laughed when I told him I’d been at Bear Necessity. “You must have really stood out there, right?”
“You could say that,” I said with a wink. Ralf had actually been on one of the floats in the parade, though I didn’t remember seeing him on any of them – probably because I was too busy being a fool swimming around in the canal. He found that particularly amusing. “You’ve had a shower since then though, haven’t you?” I mocked outrage, probably to cover the fact that I had gone almost a full 24 hours before showering after the dip during the parade.
“Of course I have!” He chuckled, and then we had one final kiss and a long hug goodbye before he made his move onto the train.
“It’s not even a goodbye this time,” he said reassuringly. “Just a ‘see you soon’.” It was true, but despite knowing I would definitely be seeing him again, I couldn’t help but get a little emotional as we said goodbye. He’d been a big influence on me in a lot of ways, and quite the catalyst when it had come to planning my trip around Europe, and I don’t think it would have been quite the same if we had never met. We waved through windows of the train as it pulled out of the station, carrying him back east, and I blinked back the few tears that I may have otherwise shed, knowing that I would in fact be seeing him in the not too distant future.

***

After I said farewell to Ralf, I went to meet up with another friend who would also be playing a recurring role in my round the world tour. I had met Giles when I was in Berlin during pride, and he actually lived in London, but it turned out that he had come to Amsterdam for their pride celebrations as well. While I hadn’t managed to catch up with him during the weekend either, I met Giles at the train station in Amsterdam for a brief catch up before he was due to fly back home. We caught up and talked about our weekends, and he told me how to get to his house in London from the airport that I was flying into. Yes, my next destination after Amsterdam was London, and Giles had offered me a place to stay while I was there. So we had a brief catch up before he had to depart, and I said farewell knowing that I would be seeing him in only a few days time. After that it was off Vondelpark to meet Joris, Thjis and their friends.

Vondelpark is full of lakes.

Vondelpark is full of lakes.

Statue in the middle of Vondelpark.

Statue in the middle of Vondelpark.

It was another beautiful afternoon, and after riding through what felt like an enormous park – it was long and narrow, and seemed to stretch on forever – I finally found where their company had spread out on picnic blankets to soak up the sun. I met a few new people, and had the same conversations about my travels – what I was doing in Amsterdam, where I was going next, where I had been and how long I was going to be away on my whole trip – with a few different people who I hadn’t met, as well as chatting with some of the people who I had met at the parade yesterday. At the end of the afternoon, when all the beers had been drunk, everyone hopped back on their bikes and cycled to Rembrantplein, a plaza in the middle of the city where the final closing pride party was taking place. More beer was drunk, and we danced the afternoon away. I met a bunch of people here and there, not really not really getting to know any of them but getting on well enough with them to have a good time. There was a performance by Willeke Alberti, Holland’s ‘gay mum’, an older female singer who was something of an icon among the gay men of the Netherlands.
“You don’t have anything like that in Australia?” Thjis asked me. “Australia’s gay mum?” The only Australian female singer I could think of who was something of gay icon was Kylie Minogue (although we did have Marcia Hines popping up all over the place at Sydney Mardi Gras 2014), and I don’t think anyone could consider Kylie a ‘mum’. As the night eventually grew darker there were some pyrotechnics, and it was safe to say that Amsterdam Pride 2013 went out, literally, with a bang. The night was complete with a stop at the fast food shop on the cycle home, and Joris getting a huge bag of French fries and, in typical Dutch tradition, smothered them in mayonnaise. I had watched watched Gemma do that as a teenager back home, but it was only now that I actually believed that it really was a Dutch thing. Regardless, they were delicious, and an appreciated addition from Holland to my list of international drunk food cuisine.

The Closing Party of Amsterdam Pride 2013.

The Closing Party of Amsterdam Pride 2013.

The beer cups knew the score.

The beer cups knew the score.

I don't know who these guys are but they wanted a photo with me. Gotta give the people what they want.

I don’t know who these guys are but they wanted a photo with me. Gotta give the people what they want.

The pyrotechnic display for the finale of pride.

The pyrotechnic display for the finale of pride.

***

The following day was back to real life for Joris and Thjis. While I had only intended on staying in Amsterdam for pride, the best deal on the flights to London were on the Wednesday, and Joris and Thjis generously let me extend my stay in their home for the remaining days. They’d done their time in showing me around though – it was back to the working week and their jobs for them – so I was left to my own devices. I rode around the city on my bike, taking photos of some of the main plazas and squares. I attempted to visit the Anne Frank Museum, which is actually in the house where she hid from the world all those years ago. However, the line was absolutely, ridiculously long. I would have loved to visit it, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to even contemplate standing in the line that stretched down the street and around several corners. So I abandoned the history, and instead spend my time wandering the more contemporary streets of Amsterdam. The Red Light District isn’t that confronting during the day, but the whole area still has this eclectic and kooky vibe that largely contributes to Amsterdam’s international reputation.

Dam Square in the centre of the city.

Dam Square in the centre of the city.

The National Monument is a WWII monument in Dam Square.

The National Monument is a WWII monument in Dam Square.

I also had lunch with Asja on one of my last days. We bought some delicious sandwiches from a shop she recommended, and walked over to Vondelpark and laid out in the sun. We talked about life and travelling, and I got to know her a lot better than I ever had when our paths had crossed when we were in Australia. Back then, if you’d told me that the two of us would one day be hanging out in a park in Amsterdam and chatting away like old friends, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. I guess it’s funny how different walks of life end up bringing people together like that, and it definitely reinforces that idea that the world really is a small place after all. After our gossiping and sun baking session, Asja had to get back to work. However, there was one thing in Amsterdam that I was yet to do that I really wanted to try.
“I don’t like smoking it, though,” I confessed to Asja. “I’ve never really been a fan of smoking anything, really. It hurts too much.”
“So, what? You want to try a space cake?” It was weird to think that it would be perfectly legal for me to go and buy a baked good with marijuana in the recipe, but we were in Amsterdam, and it was completely legal.
“Well, I don’t want to be some typical tourist. I know there’s more to Amsterdam than weed, and that not everyone here is a stoner. But… it is legal here.”
Asja just laughed and rolled her eyes. I was probably spouting a lame excuse she’d already heard a dozen times before, but she didn’t seem to mind. I walked her back to her house and her work, and on the way we stopped in and bought me a space cake from one of the infamous coffee shops.
“Now just remember, it takes a while to take effect when you eat it,” she warned me. “You might think it was a dud, and that nothing is happening, but just wait. Don’t go off and start riding your bike around or doing anything stupid.”

So off Asja went to work, and I was left to consume my space cake by myself. I took it home to eat it, and sat in my room and played with Bolli and Stoli while I waited for it to kick in. I know plenty of people who smoke weed back home – I’ll admit to having tried it a handful of times, but it never really did anything for me. I didn’t know I expected this to be any different, but I thought eating it would be different. Maybe it was a dud, I’m not sure. All I know is that I’m pretty sure I dozed off at some point in the afternoon – I don’t know if the marijuana made me sleepy, or if I was just tired. But when I eventually stirred the only thing I could think of was how hungry I was. I’d anticipated this, and proceeded to eat the entire bag of potato chips I had bought on the way home and drank a whole bottle of Coke. As I sat there staring at what remained of my munchies, I heard Thjis come home. The spare room I was sleeping in was also used for storage, so he ended up coming in to get something.

Stoli

Stoli.

Bolli.

Bolli.

“Hey Robert, how’s it going?” Thjis said to me. I can’t really explain it – I guess it must have been one of the few noticeable effects of the drug, but as soon as Thjis spoke to me I broke out into a fit of uncontrollable giggling. What was funny? I had absolutely no idea. And I think the fact that I was laughing at nothing made it even funnier (for me), because I was unable to stop.
“Ahh… are you high?” Thjis said with a chuckle. My inability to speak through the fit of giggles probably answered his question, but eventually I calmed down enough to reply.
“I think… yeah, I guess I am.” The giggles only last about 10 minutes or so – the same amount of time as the munchies – and afterwards I felt particularly normal again. In the end I guess the experience reaffirmed my believe that weed didn’t really do anything for me – or that I’ve still only ever tried really poor quality stuff. But if the main effects it has on me are making me sleepy and hungry, and it is a well known fact I do not require pharmacological assistance for either of those things.

***

On Tuesday evening, Thjis asked if I wanted to join him at a BBQ for dinner with some of his friends. Joris had been feeling ill that day and had stayed home from work – a few jokes were made that it was from swimming in the canal, which made me a little uneasy – so he wouldn’t be joining us, but Thjis and I set out across town on our bikes, stopping to pick up some wine along the way. We were going to Frans’ place – the same friend who’s boat we had been on during the parade on Saturday. It was a mild and pleasant afternoon, and we all sat on the building’s rooftop terrace, the barbecue sizzling away in the background as I listened to the group of friends chat and gossip about the weekend that had just passed. There would have been about eight of them, and while I recognised a fair few from Saturday, I hadn’t had much luck with remembering names. Jan, one of the names I did remember, had a black eye – apparently Joris had swung a hand or an elbow too wide when he had been launching himself into the canal, and accidentally hit him in the face. I don’t know how I missed an event like that at the time, but it was a pretty funny retrospective story (sorry Jan).

Houses by the canal.

Houses by the canal.

At one point in the evening, before the sun had sunk below the horizon, Frans helped me up to the highest point of the rooftop so that I was able to get a view of the surrounding city. Frans lived quite close to the centre, and the area was full of old and beautiful buildings. He pointed out a few landmarks and features, and I took a few pictures of the quaint little rows of houses set alongside the canals. We returned to the table with the others, and we stayed out there as long as we could. But as the sun started to go down it became a little cooler. Blankets were brought up from inside, and being the warm-blooded creature some the Southern Hemisphere that I am, I needed several draped over my legs and shoulders to keep from getting the chills. Eventually everyone had to get going though, so I said goodbye to all the guys I had met over the weekend, and thanked them for letting me crash their circle of friends for pride.

Amsterdam rooftops.

Amsterdam rooftops.

In the end there was just Frans, his partner Michel, Thjis and myself. “You know what we should do?” Frans said to us. “We should take Robert to gay bingo!” I couldn’t help but laugh – traditionally I thought bingo was supposed to be a game for little old ladies, but it seemed the world of gay nightlife has adopted it as a popular pass time, too. Holland isn’t the only country I’ve seen it in, but it was actually going to the first time I had attended a gay bingo night. The four of us headed to a nearby bar called The Queen’s Head, and took a seat with our drinks and waited for the game to begin. It was a cozy, dimly light bar, and we were seated near the back with a view over the large canal through the windows, lights twinkling at us from across the water. The evening was hosted by – of course – a drag queen, and I felt that sense of familiarity that you get from walking into a gay bar with drag queens anywhere in the world. The bingo cards were set up in squares so that each game had three rounds – the first to complete a straight line, the first to complete one of the nine sub-squares, and then the first to completely check off the entire square. As it would happen, during one of the rounds I was the first to call bingo for checking off a straight line – the reward for which was the lucky dip box. After the drag queen did the usual run of asking a few questions and embarrassing me in front of the whole bar, a trapdoor popped up in the middle of the stage, and a box full of small white pieces of packing foam appeared.

Setting out to search for my prize.

Setting out to search for my prize.

“Your prize is in there,” the drag queen said. “Now get in there and find it!” I got down on my hands and knees and reached into the polystyrene, while some silly game show music played overhead. I hadn’t expected it to be too hard to find the prize – the people in the previous rounds hadn’t had any problems – but as I scrambled around through the box, I kept coming up empty handed. Judging by the laughs from the crowd, I assumed the drag queen was making some kind of lewd gestures towards me while my butt was sticking up in the air, and for a moment I thought this might have all been a big practical joke on me. But eventually the drag queen exclaimed, “Oh come on, have you still not found it?” and I came up empty handed and shrugged my shoulders. She seemed legitimately confused.
“Well.. that’s not right… there’s definitely something in there.” She ended up getting down to help me search for it, to the point she even stepped in to the box and waded around in the knee-high packing foam in an attempt to find it.
“Well this is a little awkward,” she said with a laugh. In the end she ended up calling over the hunky bartender to help us. To my horror, he fished around in the depths of the box for about 10 seconds before pulling out “Diamonds: The Unofficial Biography of Rihanna” on DVD. It had been lying flat on the bottom of the box, and had very easily escaped most of our clutches and desperate attempts to locate it.

Still looking for my prize.

Still looking for my prize.

We all had a good laugh, and I felt a little stupid but I just had to laugh with it. But in the end the joke definitely wasn’t on me, because the bar also gave me a nice bottle of champagne as a way of saying sorry for having me down on me knees for so long – the pun, surely, was intended.
“Wow, this is actually really nice stuff!” Frans said as I sat back down at the table. “What a nice parting gift from Amsterdam!”
We didn’t stay out too late, since everyone did have to work tomorrow, so I said goodbye to Frans and Michel as Thjis and I headed back to the bikes.
“Have you seen the Red Light District at night yet?” Thjis asked me as we began peddling. I told him I’d been very close, but hadn’t gone through it yet. “Okay, let’s go that way home. I mean, you can’t leave Amsterdam and not see it.” On a Tuesday night there wasn’t as much going on, but Thjis did take me past a few of the windows lined with red lights, girls standing suggestively in the window with their come-hither looks. It was almost difficult to fathom – a world and a concept of prostitution that was so different from my own country, and therefore so far from my own preconceptions – but in the end I guess that’s why we travel, isn’t it? To learn these new things, new perspectives, and to learn more about the world outside the world we’ve always known.

***

The following morning I bid farewell to Joris and Thjis. I was heading over to catch up with Asja one last time before heading to the airport to catch my plane to London. I left them the bottle of champagne I’d been given the night before as a way of saying thank you for letting me stay the extra few days, and I didn’t even know if I’d be allowed to carry it on the plane anyway. “It’s supposed to be good stuff though, so save it for a special occasion!” Later on in the year, I would be delighted to learn that they popped the cork after Joris had popped the question and asked Thjis to marry him. It doesn’t get much  more special than that!

I spent the afternoon with Asja and one of her work colleges visiting a small brewery called Brouwerij ‘t IJ. There was a bar inside with a whole heap of different beers to try, although I thought the production end of brewery made a rather unpleasant smell that was a little off-putting. Still, what made the brewery special was that it was inside a windmill – things don’t get more Dutch than that. My last day there was also very overcast and rainy. “It seems like your luck with the weather has finally run out,” Asja said with a laugh. It was true, and not a moment too soon. I joked with her, saying that I’d packed the sunshine into my backpack and would be taking it to London with me.

The windmill pub and brewery.

The windmill pub and brewery.

I’d been incredibly fortunate during my time in Amsterdam, and not just with the weather. I’d had a great time getting to know Joris and Thjis and the great bunch of guys that was their group of friends, and felt like I’d really been integrated into the locals way of life. I couldn’t thank them enough for the amazing time I had. Also getting to catch up with old friends like Michael and Asja had been lovely, and there hadn’t been a moment in Amsterdam where I had felt lonely or bored. Definitely up there as a major highlight of the trip so far, I was a little sad to be leaving the city. London beckoned from across the sea, but at least I could leave knowing I’d had an amazing, authentic and incredibly enjoyable Amsterdam experience.

From Beach to Butch: My First Day in Amsterdam

As much as I had wished Lola’s prediction was true, there eventually came a time, again, when I had to leave Berlin. However, this time the departure would end on a much lighter and livelier note, despite having to get up before 6am. Last time Ralf had seen me off at the U-Bahn station on his way to work, and I’d waved goodbye as I descended down the steps onto the platform. This time, Ralf would be coming with me to Amsterdam. Throughout most of my travels around Europe, I had always been planning to finish up in Amsterdam on the coming weekend because – you guessed it – that’s when they were celebrating pride. I had already planned ahead with my Couchsurfing hosts a couple of months in advance, but as it happened Ralf was also travelling over to the Netherlands to visit a friend, and join in with the pride festivities. While we both had our own plans for while we were in Amsterdam, Ralf had suggested that we catch the train there together, to provide each other with some company on the 8 hour journey. With the exception of Itzel on my way to Prague, most of my train trips had been moments of solitude, so I gratefully accepted the change of pace.

Staring out the window while my coffee goes cold.

Staring out the window while my coffee goes cold.

Ralf having a nap on the train.

Ralf having a nap on the train.

During the journey Ralf told me a little bit about Amsterdam and their pride celebrations. When I was in Groningen, Gemma had also told me a little about what she had heard of Amsterdam pride, so unlike my experiences in Madrid and Paris – which had been completely unexpected – pride in Amsterdam was something that had been highly anticipated for quite some time now. Towards the end of the journey, I saw rows of rainbow flags strung up across the city, waving gently in the wind, and suddenly my heart swelled with excitement. Pride or not, Amsterdam was one of those cities with a worldwide reputation for a lot of different things, and I was excited to get amongst it and experience it all for myself. When we disembarked and stepped out into the bright sunshine – something that was apparently quite uncommon in this city – it was time for Ralf and I to part ways. He was going to meet his friend, and I would be meeting Michael – an Australian friend of mine who was also travelling in Europe – and crashing with him in his hotel for the night. We bid each other a quick farewell, assuming we would probably run into each other at some point in the weekend.

***

Michael had had a big night of partying the previous night, so we ended up just having dinner out and hanging out at the hotel, catching up and relaxing. He was catching a train to Berlin the following day, and I was more than happy to take it easy in anticipation for the coming weekend. As much as I love meeting foreigners and new local people, it’s always nice to sit down and have a chat with a familiar Australian and not having to worry about running to cultural barriers of any kind. It was a fleeting encounter though, and the next morning we parted ways – him to the train station and myself onto the next friend I was catching up with. Asja was was the ex-girlfriend of my best friend Gemma’s older brother Brendon, who I’d met up with in Thailand. The connection really isn’t as complicated as it sounds when you try to say it out loud, and I had met Asja a few years ago when she was living in Australia. Originally from Germany, she was now living and studying in Amsterdam, so at Gemma’s suggestion I had gotten in touch with her and arranged to meet up. After arriving via foot at her small flat – located above the shop she was working in – I was dripping with sweat, so I was delighted to learn that she was planning on taking me to the beach.

“It’s such a beautiful day! You don’t get many sunny days like this in Amsterdam, so you have to make the most of it!” We were going to be joined by a couple of Turkish guys Asja had made friends with earlier in the week, and so I left my luggage in Asja’s room and we set off to the train station. The city limits of Amsterdam itself are so small that the beach Zandvoort aan Zee, Asja had explained, is technically outside of Amsterdamn, but it only took about 20 minutes to get there. However, as Asja had said before, you need to make the most of days like today, and so the train was absolutely packed with beach goers. We squeezed like in like sardines for the relatively short train ride, but it wasn’t that much better when we finally arrived at the beach. The shoreline stretched on in both directions for what seemed like miles, and every inch of it was covered in people. We made our way down to the sand and eventually found a space to claim as our own. We laid out on our towels and began to soak up some sun.

Asja and I enjoying the sunshine.

Asja and I enjoying the sunshine.

The crowded beach at Zandvoord ann Zee.

The crowded beach at Zandvoord aan Zee.

At the Zandvoort station after our afternoon at the beach.

At the Zandvoort station after our afternoon at the beach.

“This sunshine is so amazing! It almost feels like I’m back in Australia,” Asja said with a grin.
“Well, I guess I just brought the weather with me,” I responded. “But at least this sunshine isn’t going to kill you.” I had been using sunscreen here and there, but I was amazed at how impossible it seemed to be to get sunburnt around most of Europe. No wonder so many Europeans came to Australia and got burnt to a crisp – the strength of the UV in our sunlight really just seems to be in a whole new ballpark. A few more of Asja’s Dutch friends joined us for a little while on the beach – I briefly met so many people during such a short period of time that I had no hope of keeping track of all their names – but I chatted to a few of them between dips into the cool water. It was lovely and refreshing, but if someone had told me the first thing I would do on my first full day in Amsterdam was go to the beach, I’m not quite sure I would have believed them. Yet it was a much needed escape from the heat wave that was currently moving across Europe, and it was great seeing Asja and catching up with her. Eventually we packed ourselves up and headed back to Amsterdam – Asja had plans to meet another friend, and it was time for me to go and meet my Couchsurfing hosts.

***

Asja’s place was relatively near to the centre of town, and just a short tram ride later I had arrived at my new hosts place. Asja had been right in saying that Amsterdam was a relatively small city – in comparison to sprawling cities like Sydney, nothing was actually that far from anything else. When I arrived I was greeted by Joris, who loomed over me in height – the Dutch are typically one of the tallest races in the world – and had a short buzzed haircut and a warm, friendly face. His two beautiful Russian Blue cats, named Stoli and Bolli, also made a point of introducing themselves as they came up to inspect the new visitor.
“So my boyfriend Thijs is away on a work trip, but he’ll be back tomorrow morning. We’ve actually got another Couchsurfer staying with us this weekend too, and I’m pretty sure I just accidentally gave him the wrong directions,” Joris said with a sheepish grin. “So we may have to go pick him up from another tram stop.” So I’d barely been in the house 10 minutes before we were off to pick up André, who was originally Portuguese but now lived in Copenhagen. When we arrived back at Joris’ place he offered us a beer each, so we cracked them open and had a brief chat as we got to know each other. But it wasn’t too long before it was time to move again.

“So, I have to go and help run this rugby workshop.” Joris was a member of the Amsterdam Lowlanders, the city’s gay rugby team. As part of the pride celebrations, the team was organising a workshop for anyone who was interested in getting involved, or even just learning a thing or two about the game. André was meeting up with another friend of his that evening, but I had no other plans, so despite having somewhat of an intense fear of team sports, I decided to go along with Joris and check it out. But instead of driving, we would be getting into the local culture and riding our bikes there. Joris was planning on borrowing a couple of bikes from a friend for André and I for the weekend, but for now I would be borrowing Thijs’ bike. I found it remarkable just how popular cycling was in the city, and in the Netherlands in general.
“Why, don’t people ride bikes in Sydney?” Joris had asked me when I’d seemed rather incredulous.
“Well, they do… But you have to be, like, really serious about it. It’s mainly an exercise thing. You need to be motivated, since most drivers just hate cyclists.”
I think that surprised Joris a little. “It’s nothing like that here. Everyone rides bikes. It’s just an easy way to get from Point A to Point B. Nothing too extreme about it.” Indeed, it would appear that bikes too precedence over cars in most of the city. Amsterdam was similar to Copenhagen in that it seemed as though bikes really did have right of way in almost any circumstance. They had their own lanes and their own traffic lights, and if there wasn’t a cyclist whizzing by you at any given moment, you could be sure there would be at least half a dozen locked up no more than a few metres away from wherever you were standing. I think I remember Gemma telling me that there were actually more bikes than people in the Netherlands, a statistic that was extremely believable when seeing cities like Amsterdam.

Still, the cycling culture was a little intense to the point of being terrifying, as I’m not the strongest cycler. I did my best to stay as close behind Joris as possible so that I didn’t get cut off or intercepted, and have to manage the intersections on my own. It wasn’t too long before we arrived at the park, where a fairly large crowd had assembled for the rugby workshop. I was an obvious beginner, but after getting over the initial nerves I found that for the most part I could adequately pass and catch the ball – well, maybe not according to the more experienced players, but I don’t think they minded too much since it was a workshop for beginners. After the passing practice came something even more terrifying – learning how to tackle. Team sports? I can deal with that. But contact sports? Terrified. Absolutely terrified. I’d done a couple of crazy things that should probably have killed me over the last few months, but this one was still by far the scariest for me.

Or at least, it was at first. But as the experienced players explained it to us, it became a lot more simple to understand. In fact, the whole logical behind tackling, and being tackled, was to not be afraid of falling. If you’re going down, be aware of how you’re falling and just go down. It’s when you try to resist it or when you’re afraid of falling that your body reacts in a host of weird and potentially painful ways when you inevitably do eat the dirt. I have to admit that by the end of it I was actually quite enjoying myself, getting down and dirty with a bunch of sweaty guys – hey, maybe Amsterdam wasn’t quite so different to the initial expectations? At the very least, I was able to prove to myself that I wasn’t completely devoid of any masculinity in a traditional sense, or that I wasn’t a complete gay stereotype. I was also once again I was reminded, like I had been with Robin in Zürich, that I really needed to get some more hobbies when I got home. After all, I did know I few team members of the Sydney Convicts… well, we’ll see how I go.

The Lowlanders showing us some more technical rugby skills at the end of the workshop.

The Lowlanders showing us some more technical rugby skills at the end of the workshop.

The scrum was one rugby technique that I decided not to take part in.

The scrum was one rugby technique that I decided not to take part in.

After the rugby workshop, we got back on our bikes and headed back home to get cleaned up. It was the Friday night of Amsterdam Pride weekend, and the adrenaline I’d been pumping during all that rugby had made me more keen than ever to get out and experience the city’s nightlife.

Down the Danube

Thankfully, unlike my trek from Ancona to Zürich, I only had to catch one train to get me to Austria. I did have to travel from the western tip to the eastern tip of the country though, but travelling through the mountainous terrain did provide some pretty spectacular, picture perfect views. After the long day of travel I finally arrived in the beautiful city of Vienna and was greeted by my next Couchsurfing host. Kathi was the first female that I was staying with whom I had connected with through Couchsurfing – Susanna in Finland had been a family friend – but I had still found her within my search for hosts in the Queer Couchsurfing group. Robin had showed me how Couchsurfing can be used not just to find places to stay, but also to connect with people who had common interests. I decided that I would probably feel more comfortable staying with gay people while I was travelling, since most of my friends back home are gay, and they would be able to show me some of the queer hotspots – but up until now I had only stayed with other guys. It wasn’t a conscious choice – I think there were just more male hosts available, in general – but when I’d stumbled across Kathi’s profile I’d gotten a really good feeling from it, and she had happily accepted my request to stay with her. I had been tossing up between trying to visit Vienna, or travelling slightly more north to visit Holger – who I met in Barcelona – in Munich, but I had had trouble getting in touch with him, so once again my potential Couchsurfing host had been a real game changer in the direction of my travels.

View of the Austrian countryside as I sped towards Vienna in a train.

View of the Austrian countryside as I sped towards Vienna in a train.

There was a kind and carefree air about Kathi from the moment I met her at the train station. She was also relatively new to Couchsurfing, so she was pretty excited about having me stay with her. I think the fact that I was Australian helped win over a lot of my hosts – to all of them I must have seemed exceptionally foreign and exotic, all the way from that mysterious land down under. She explained some of the culture of Vienna and the basics of the city to me – such as the ringed town layout and the different zones – while we got caught the metro to her apartment, which she shared with two roommates. “The coffeehouse culture is a really big thing in Vienna”, she advised me. “That’s something most people want to check out. The centre Vienna is divided up into rings, in particularly the main ring that encloses the city centre. Most of the things you’ll want to see or do will be there.” I wondered how I would have coped on this trip I hadn’t had hosts like Kathi, Umer, Ike and Valerio to help know these things about their various cities. I imagine I would have done a lot of unintentional aimless wandering around – as opposed to a lot of the intentional aimless wandering around that I still did.

It was a Friday afternoon the day that I arrived in Vienna, and both of of Kathi’s housemates were away for the weekend. One of them wouldn’t bet returning until after I left, so rather than sleep on the couch in her bedroom, Kathi told me that she would sleep in her housemates room, so and that I could sleep in her bed and have the room to myself. It was more than I had been expecting when I had sent the request to Kathi, and it was probably one of the best set ups I’d had through Couchsurfing so far. As soon as we got to Kathi’s, I had a well needed shower – the countryside views through the Austrian mountains had been postcard-worthy beautiful, but the 7 hour trip had left me feeling less than fresh. “Be careful with the water temperature”, Kathi had said as I entered the bathroom. “It tends to just alternate between… Antarctica and Mordor.” I laughed, appreciating the reference. After the shower I joined my new host in the kitchen. “Are you hungry? I was thinking I could show you how to cook some traditional Austrian food, maybe.” I assured her that her national cuisine of schnitzel had made it down to Australia, but all the same it was fun to help out in the kitchen and do some cooking. We cooked the schnitzel and vegetables, and she introduced me to an Austrian drink called Radler. “It’s basically beer mixed with lemonade,” she said, placing a bottle in front of me. “You can mix yourself or buy it like this.” It was a little fizzy from the added soft drink, but the taste was extremely refreshing, the sweetness balancing our the flavour of the beer perfectly, and I enjoyed it much more than the Rivella I had tried in Switzerland. We sat and ate and chatting, getting to know each other as we downed a few bottles of Radler.

Kathi was particularly interested in picking my brains about the gay culture down in Australia. “What’s it like for gay girls in Sydney? Here, it can be really difficult for…” She was choosing her words carefully. “For more… feminine, girls. Like… sometimes I’m never really sure… You know, of where – and who – they are?” I realised she was talking about her gaydar – her ability to identify other queer people on sight alone. I must admit, the more feminine lesbians have always been the least obvious blips on my gaydar, but luckily stopping them had never been quite such a pertinent issue for myself. Kathi went on to tell me that queer girls also had less places to meet people, citing the recent pride festivities in Vienna, where there had been multiple parties aimed at all the gay men, and only one event that specifically targeted same-sex attracted females. I had to regretfully tell her that gender ratio of gay bars and parties in Sydney was of a similar level, though I won’t pretend I know much about the lesbian scene – not for the first time I pondered on the curious fact that the party scenes for gay guys and gay girls were so divided in the first place.

We continued to talk for hours about gay life, travelling and Couchsurfing, and even music. Kathi was learning how to play the ukulele, so as part of the condition of me staying with her I had promised her that I would show her a few tips I had picked up along the way. I was only teaching myself, but as an acoustic guitar player of nearly 10 years I didn’t have too much difficultly figuring it out. But before it we knew it, it had gotten quite late, so I said goodnight to Kathi and hit the hay after the exhausting day of travelling.

***

The next day, at Kathi’s suggestion, we caught the train north of her rather centrally located apartment to the banks of the Danube River. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and we had lunch at a little restaurant next to the river that served some excellent Austrian dishes, and of course, more Radler. That wasn’t the most exciting part about this restaurant though – after we had finished eating, I followed Kathi down to the small jetty that was actually a part of the restaurant. There, we hired a small electric motorboat and went for a cruise down the river. “There’s some nice views of the city from the water. Perhaps we could bring our ukulele’s and have a sing-a-long, or something?” Kathi had suggested the previous evening before we had gone to bed. I had told her that that sounded absolutely marvellous, so once we got out on the river I pulled out my ukulele and started strumming away.

The view of the city from out on the Danube.

The view of the city from out on the Danube.

The sunshine was streaming down on us as I worked my way through the small repertoire of songs that I had managed to teach myself over the last few months, and Kathi steered the boat up the river. We passed a couple areas that were substitute beaches for the Austrians – the idea of living in a landlocked country with no nearby coastal area still seemed so odd to me – but I have to say, they weren’t as nice as the riverside swimming areas in Zürich, probably because the water in the Danube wasn’t quite clean enough to be drinking quality. But it was still beautiful, and Kathi told me how she often comes down here to bathe in the sun and go for a swim. When we reached a wider part of the river, Kathi killed the engine and we just floated for a little while, watching others glide by us on their paddle boats, and soaking it all in while I strummed away on the ukulele. “It’s so nice,” Kathi said between songs, with a huge smile plastered across her face. “It’s just a nice, holiday feeling, to have the ukulele going in the background while we’re out on the water in the sun.” It was no tropical island getaway, she but was right. Kathi didn’t even end up playing her ukulele, and in the end I was just playing random chords to give the scene a nice and cheerful soundtrack. On our way back to the jetty we passed many boats full of other people, both locals and tourists, and they all smiled at us or exclaimed with delight when they saw or heard the ukulele. It really did feel like a scene from a movie, or even a travel brochure, but it was so much fun, and I couldn’t have thought of a better way to spend the afternoon.

Kathi took a sneaky photograph of me while I was playing the ukulele.

Kathi took a sneaky photograph of me while I was playing the ukulele.

A Little Luxury

One thing I’ve learnt about travelling is that, try as you might, there is no possible way to prepare for every single situation. You can spend weeks or months planning a trip, but odds are that life is going to throw you a curve ball and you’re going to have to deal with some unexpected and potentially unpleasant, or at the very least frustrating, situations. I experienced one particular drawback during my Air BnB stay in Barcelona, when I was told halfway through my third day staying in the apartment that there was a plumbing problem with the shower and they would set to work installing a new shower right away. Great for the people who live there – not so great for the people who are paying per night to stay there, with the expectation they would have access to basic facilities such as a bathroom. I’d already paid upfront with no chance for a refund which was a little frustrating, because if I had known I wasn’t going to have a place to shower for half my time staying there then I probably would have left to find a place where I could.

I don’t think that’s necessarily being ungrateful either – this wasn’t Couchsurfing: it wasn’t a free place to stay. I was technically a paying customer, and unfortunately I didn’t get what I thought I was paying for. I went so far as to meet up with someone on one of the various gay social networking phone applications so that I might be able to borrow their shower to get ready for my final night out at the clubs in Barcelona. He was another tourist, a British guy named Mike, and after my shower we hung out for the afternoon and actually got on pretty well. He was even considering coming out to Metro with me that evening, but he had to cancel after receiving an emergency phone call from home about someone trying to break into his apartment back in London. So once again I set out to the club by myself, and that was the night that I met Fausto, Holger and Malte.

***

The next day, after catching up on a bit of sleep, I got in contact with Fausto. He had invited me to come swimming with Holger, Malte and himself at their hotel pool, and considering the shower in my apartment wouldn’t be fixed any time soon, I figured a relocation wouldn’t be such a bad idea – even if it was just for an afternoon. I gathered my things, said my goodbyes to Rich, and then jumped on the metro over to the seaside hotel where Fausto and the German guys were staying. I dropped my things in their hotel room, changed into my swim shorts, and headed down to the pool.

I chatted with the three of them as we sat around the pool and soaked up the bright sunshine that was beating down out of the clear sky. Fausto, despite having a distinct American accent and speaking perfect English, was actually from Brazil. He’d lived and grown up in New York City before eventually moving back to Brazil, where he now resided. The three of them were part of a group of friends who lived internationally, taking trips around the world during certain events and special occasions to catch up with one another. Holger lived in Munich and Malte in Berlin, and the three of them had caught up in Spain after Fausto had been travelling in Greece wi some of his family. I told them about my travels while they told tales about some of their trips and some of their own crazy stories with this global group of friends. I think more than anything they were fascinated about the idea of my backpacking journey, but after seeing the place they were staying at, it wasn’t difficult to see why. There were hotel staff wandering around the pool area who were catering to each and every whim of all of the pool-goers in order to make their experiences as comfortable as possible. Ironically, I actually felt a little uncomfortable with the idea of people waiting on me so incessantly. It was a level of luxury I hadn’t really experienced in quite a long time, and I’d grown quite used to depending on nobody but myself for most things, especially in the last couple of months.

Eventually I slipped into the water, partly to avoid being asked “Is everything alright here?” another countless time, and partly because the Mediterranean sun shining down on us made the sparkling blue tiles that lined the pool irresistibly inviting. Afterwards, we had lunch in the restaurant at the hotel, and the guys also let me use the shower in their room to clean myself up and get ready for my next train. It was a Friday afternoon, and I was heading west to the Spanish capital of Madrid, in hopes of finding a more engaging party scene than I had in Barcelona. But I thanked the three men profusely before heading off to the train station. They had given me a glimpse into another world of travel from which I was currently so very far removed. After the nuisance that had been the broken shower in my Air BnB apartment, I definitely had to acknowledge the benefits that come with paying for your own place in an institution that specialises in services for travellers. Not that I would have experienced this level of luxury at a hostel – and there’s no way I would have been able to afford the kind of place Fausto, Holger and Malte were staying at on my budget. I’ve heard plenty of people tell me that they could never do what I was doing, and that they always had to stay in hotels when they were travelling. Though in most cases those holidays only last a few weeks, or a couple of months at best, since most people had regular jobs to go back to – which probably helped them in affording to stay in such places. The length of my trip on the budget I was working with didn’t exactly allow me to be too fussy when it came to accommodation, but I was okay with that. For now, I was more than content with my life hopping through hostels and couches as a thrifty backpacker.

A Family Affair

After a light late breakfast at the apartment with PJ, Tony and Nasser – and a bit of playtime with their adorable pooch, appropriately named Toy – I bid the Frenchmen farewell as I headed back to my hostel. Check out was at noon, and I was desperate to not have a repeat of the incident that happened in my hostel in Moscow. Nasser got a little sentimental – I’d learnt that the French can get very intense and passionate very quickly – and even invited me to visit and stay with him at his place in Nice. While the south of France hadn’t featured as a stop on my itinerary, the thought of it sounded marvellous, so I told him I’d see if I could work it into my travel plans, and that I would keep in touch either way.

Toy trying in vain to get a share of my breakfast.

Toy trying in vain to get a share of my breakfast.

***

My plans for Sunday afternoon were a little different from anything a tourist would be doing, or indeed even a traveller. When I arrived at Greg’s apartment – a beautiful, classic apartment complete with a gorgeous view of the Parisian streets below and an elevator that was smaller than an airplane bathroom – he told me he would be meeting some of his friends to chill out in one of the many parks around the centre of France. Normally I would have jumped at the offer, but there was something else I was looking forward to, so Greg and I left his place together but went our separate ways – him for his friend, and myself for my family.

The view of the streets from Greg's apartment.

The view of the streets from Greg’s apartment.

It’s not every day that you accidentally end up in the same foreign city as some of your relatives, so it had been quite a surprise when I had seen my Aunty Therese posting photos on Facebook of herself, my Uncle Jason and my cousins Sophie and George, in England. They’re also Sydneysiders, it seemed that our European holidays had conveniently coincided, and the four of them had landed in Paris on the Saturday that I was there. They were renting out an apartment through Air BnB for their stay, and after coordinating schedules with Therese, I made plans to go over and visit them for some Sunday afternoon drinks.

It was a beautiful sunny day, and the parks had been full of people, locals and tourists alike, lounging around on the vast green expenses and soaking up the European summer sun. I would later joke with my friends that I had a better tan after a summer in Europe than I ever had during any of my summers in Australia. While Australia’s UV levels inevitably scorched to a crisp anyone who stayed in direct sunlight for over 30 minutes, I found European sunlight to be the equivalent to Mama Bear’s porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears – it wasn’t too harsh, but it wasn’t too weak that it couldn’t warm you up: it was just right. The sight of all the sunbathers made me realise something else too: in a vast city where there was just so much to do, one also needs to schedule in time to literally just do nothing. To sit, to relax, and soak up some Vitamin D – things like that are just as important in a holiday, in my opinion, and you don’t get the time to do it if you’re too busy rushing around trying to cram in as much as you can. It was a revelation I would inevitably revisit many times throughout my journey.

A gorgeous day over the river Seine.

A gorgeous day over the river Seine.

Hôtel National des Invalides - passed on my way to Jason and Therese's.

Hôtel National des Invalides – passed on my way to Jason and Therese’s.

Once I reached Therese and Jason’s apartment – located quite centrally, near the Eiffel Tower – we cracked open some drinks, and all of a sudden we could have been back in Sydney, enjoying some sunshine on the back verandah while catching up over a family drink-together (what my extended family calls get togethers). Therese had been keeping up with my blogs, though they weren’t up to speed with real time, so I caught her up on some of latest adventures, and all about the pride festivities the day before.
“Yes, well, we couldn’t have timed that one better ourselves”, she said with a laugh as she sipped her beer. “Yesterday afternoon – took us about two hours to get a cab. Jason was about to lose it!” I couldn’t help but giggle at the mental image of my uncle staring incredulously at a main road full of parade floats and near-naked go-go dancers, searching in vain for a cab to get his family out of the madness. “But what are the odds of landing in the city smack bang in the middle of a gay pride parade, right?”
“Well, unlucky for some, but very lucky for others”, I said with a laugh.

Jason and I toasting to our European travels.

Jason and I toasting to our European travels.

Jason was in a better mood than he supposedly was the day before, when he arrived back at the apartment with bread, cheese, wine and more beer. As impressed as I thought my male relatives would be with the fact I was now a beer drinker, instead we indulged in the fact that we were not in an Australian backyard as we ate three kinds of cheese and said a toast with the sparkling wine: “Viva la France!” Though it really was lovely to see more familiar faces, and to even relax into a relatively familiar setting – it was just enough to ward off any homesickness that could have started creeping its way in after three months on the road. We sat in the afternoon sun and stayed there well into the evening, sharing holiday stories and working our way thought the food and drink until it finally became full dark. And that was when the Eiffel Tower begins to sparkle.

“Sophie! George! Quick, come look at this!” Jason called out to my younger cousins. From a particular vantage point of their balcony, we could see the upper reaches of the Eiffel Tower through gaps in the surrounding buildings. At night the Eiffel Tower lights up, but once an hour, on the hour, she puts of a show. What look like hundreds of fairy lights all begin to glitter and flicker against the dark night sky. Walking through some of the smaller streets on my walk today had been enchanting, but this was a sight that, when seen for the first time, felt truly magical. The five of us stood on the balcony watching the tower until the glittering eventually flicked off, and I felt that finally the City of Lights was proving itself worthy of its name.

The Eiffel Tower sparkling in the distance.

The Eiffel Tower sparkling in the distance.

***

Eventually I had to head back to Greg’s. I thanked Jason and Therese for having me, wished all four of them all the best for the rest of their trip and then stumbled into a cab to head home, but not before stopping for a quick photo of the Eiffel Tower at night. I didn’t have time to stick around to see it sparkle again, but gentle glow itself is enough to create a distinct ambience in the area that feels so ingrained that it would be almost impossible to imagine Paris without it.

Nighttime view of the Eiffel Tower from the Champs de Mars.

Nighttime view of the Eiffel Tower from the Champs de Mars.

Drunken selfie with the Eiffel Tower.

Drunken selfie with the Eiffel Tower.

My last day was my final day of sightseeing, and then having dinner with Greg and one of his friends at his apartment before gathering my stuff and heading for the train station. That proved a little stressful when one of the metro lines I had intended to take to the station was experiencing a partial closure, and I had to frantically call Greg to try and figure out an alternative route. The only alternative appeared to be covering some of the ground by foot, so I was barging through the streets and waving my ticket around, desperately trying to find the terminal as fast as possible once I finally reached the station.

Of course, this was France, so things weren’t running on time and I made my train with time to spare. But as the train pulled out of Paris and headed south, I couldn’t help but smile, intensely satisfied with my time spent in Paris. In just four short days I’d seen the sights, I’d experienced the parties, caught up with old friends and family and made new friends, future friends who I would hopefully see again one day.

Welcomed With Wasps

My train arrived in Helsinki precisely on time at six o’clock, although the sun outside felt as though it should only be about three in the afternoon. I disembarked and made way to the end of the platform where I found Susanna waiting for me. Although we’d never actually met, I guess you could say Susanna was technically a family friend. Her mother is a close friend of one of my aunts, and when I had been telling her about my travel plans and mentioned that I was thinking of going through Scandinavia, she has suggested that I get into contact with her daughter Susanna. She’d Susanna might be able to offer me a place to stay or at the very least show me around Helsinki, the capital city of Finland. Susanna herself was from Canberra, living and working in Helsinki, so even though it was our first time meeting we seemed to have a bit of common ground, and we got on quite well.

Helsinki Station.

Helsinki Station.

We got one of the local trains back to her apartment, which was only five or ten minutes away from the city, and as we walked from the station she explained the public transport system a little bit more, and told me which trains to back to the city. She also explained a few of the other little quirks about the Finnish systems and culture: the tickets were available on trains, but the people who sell them aren’t the people who check for them; beer is available in the supermarkets but only until 9pm, and everything else is sold at shops appropriately called ‘Alcos’; most people diligently obey road rules, including pedestrians – you won’t see any jaywalking from a local in Helsinki; access to free Internet is officially a human right in Finland, and there is free wifi basically everywhere. It was interesting how different things were from Russia – particularly the alcohol availability – when the geographical distance was so small, but that was one of the beautiful things I was soon to discover about Europe. You can travel a matter of hours between countries, or even just within cities, and there is such a rich and unique cultural diversity that just isn’t as prevalent or profound as it is in “multicultural Australia”.

When we arrived at her place, Susanna gave me a quick tour of the building, showing me the laundry room where I could do a much needed load on washing, and the sauna where she had a weekly reservation every Friday evening. She gave me a detailed briefing, to the point where I could essentially be left to my own devices, though it was only at that point that I realised that was exactly what she was doing. She clarified by saying that she had work the following day, a Friday, and then an all day hens party on Saturday, and that she was going to leave me the keys to her place and stay with a friend for a few days. I was a little shocked, and again felt a surge of gratitude towards someone who I hardly knew, yet was going out of her way so far as to give me her apartment for the next two nights. It was a small studio, so realistically it would have been a bit of a squeeze for the two of us, but she assured me that it was no problem for her. She’d mentioned a few times that she had done a bit of travelling herself, so I suppose she knew how much a few free nights of accommodation can mean to a budget backpacker. Furthermore, it would be nice to have my own room and some private space for the first time in weeks.

***

As I was unpacking my things, and Susanna was preparing to leave, I noticed a bug flying around in the kitchen. I moved a little closer to take a look… and then bolted to the other side of the apartment. It was a wasp.
“Ahh, Susanna? Is it normal to have a wasp in the apartment?”
“What? A wasp?” She’d been in the bathroom gathering some of her things, but now she stuck her head out into the main room. “Err, no. No, that’s not normal.” We watched the wasp buzz around, hoping it would fly out the window again. Instead, it circled around and flew to the top of the windowpane – where its nest was hanging from the curtain railing.
“Oh my God! Is that a wasps nest?” It was only the size of a golf ball, but there was no denying what it was it after we watched the wasp climb through the hole at the bottom. “It’s definitely new. They must have come in and made it today, because that was not there this morning.” Her reaction was a combination of disbelief and concern – but I had to drop a bombshell that could potentially add panic to the mix.
“Ah, just before anything else happens, I should probably mention that I’m allergic to wasp stings.”
“Shit, really? Like anaphylactic allergic?”
“Um, I don’t really know. I haven’t been stung in years, but I don’t have an epi-pen or anything.”

After a little while of deciding what we were going to do, the wasp emerged from the nest, and I had a mini panic attack and ran to the bathroom to hide in terror. But by some chance the wasp decided to fly out the window, and Susanna quickly jumped the close them all as soon as it left. We’d previously been deliberating whether or not we could knock it out the window with the broom, but we weren’t sure how many wasps were inside and were too concerned that it might miss, which would be even more of a disaster. We’d even googled “How to get rid of wasps nests” and watched some pretty unhelpful YouTube videos that only inspired more fear. But now, as we slammed the windows shut, the nest seemed lifeless. But it wasn’t a risk we were willing to take, and Susanna had no equipment suitable for removing wasp nests. We made a quick trip to the supermarket to see if we could find some kind of pesticide or bug spray that might help, and on the way back we ran into some of her neighbours who were working in the communal garden.

“The wasps mostly live in the trees around here, like the ones just outside the apartment,” Susanna had reasoned, “so maybe some of them will have experience with getting rid of one.” She conveyed the problem to one of the older women, using a combination of English and Finnish, and it was almost a little amusing to watch the expressions on their faces change as the tale was told and retold in Finnish. Eventually one of the men offered to come up and have a look at the nest for us. When we got there, he simply plucked the small nest from the curtain railing and put it in a plastic bag. There mustn’t have been any more wasps inside, because that was the end of it – we thanked the man and he took the bag with the nest out with him. Later, I would find a wasp angrily buzzing at the closed window, so I made a point of opening none of them for the rest of the evening.

***

After that initial moment of excitement, I spent the rest of my evening – and in fact most of my time in Helsinki – just relaxing. I spent a bit of time in my evenings at Susanna’s sending requests and emails on Couchsurfing – Susanna was only able to offer me a place to stay for two nights, and I also didn’t have any contacts for the next few cities I would be visiting. I also used the sauna during the time when Susanna had her weekly reservation – she wasn’t going to be around and said that I was more than welcome to use it. Saunas are hugely popular in Finnish culture, and my experiences in Russia had reignited my love for their intense steamy heat. However, in Finland it’s customary to always be naked when inside the sauna, and is actually considered quite rude, and in some cases unhygienic, to wear swimwear whilst in a sauna. I don’t really have a problem with nudity in the first place, but since I had the sauna to myself I didn’t see any reason as to why I shouldn’t go naked.

During the day I ventured out into the city to do some exploring. I walked through some shops and ate at a few places, and it was quite startling to see how expensive things were. I’d been warned that Scandinavia in particular was quite expensive, but it was a culture shock that had progressively escalated, all the way from South-East Asia and right across the Trans-Siberian. Susanna had advised me of a lounas culture, a custom in which many places offer buffet style lunch menus that are about a third of the price of similar meals when ordered during the evening. Finding cheap places to eat at night could also be difficult, so Susanna encouraged me to make lunch the main meal of the day. I managed to find a few nice places though, and after all the rushing around with the Trans-Siberian tour, in the end I found one of the nicest things to do was lay in the park and enjoy the seemingly endless hours of sunshine. Even some of the locals agreed that it was one of the best things I could be doing, obviously smitten by their summer weather in the same way that the Russians were.

I was more than happy to sit back, soak up the sun, and access my human right to free wifi in the park. I had an email from my parents, who were also taking a short holiday through Europe, saying that the weather in Spain was cold and rainy. It seemed a little ironic, but I couldn’t suppress the sense of smugness that I felt when I replied to inform them that I was currently sunbathing, in Finland of all places.